But a majority of Americans don't believe Obama has affected race relations in the US one way or the other, according to a new Monitor/ TIPP poll.
Blacks and Republicans are more likely than anyone else to say that the presidency of Barack Obama, America's first black chief executive, has impaired race relations in the United States and made race more difficult to discuss.
But more broadly, according to a new Christian Science Monitor/ TIPP poll, a majority of Americans - in both genders and across all ages, incomes, political persuasions, and races - don't believe the Obama presidency has had any effect on race relations in the US beyond affirming the country's willingness to move past race as a factor in presidential electability.
"The majority of Americans polled felt [Mr. Obama's race] was not a factor [in race relations]," says Raghavan Mayur, the TIPP pollster in Ramsey, N.J. "Most people look at him not in terms of race; they look to him as the president of the country."
Since his inauguration, Obama has walked a tightrope, dividing America more by class than by race when he's talked about forcing the rich to pay a larger share of the US tax burden. His comments on race have been both eloquent - for example, the Philadelphia "race" speech during the 2008 primary season - and awkward, as in last year's episode in which he said that Cambridge, Mass., police "acted stupidly" in arresting his friend, Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr.
"Obama's liberal supporters have made a big deal about him becoming the first black president, and his detractors have made a big deal about him supposedly practicing reverse discrimination," says political historian Jason Sokol. "He's always been in a difficult spot."
But at least some black scholars hold Obama accountable for raising the racial stakes.
Carol Swain, a law professor and race expert at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., raises several examples, including the Gates affair and Sonia Sotomayor's appointment to the Supreme Court. In these examples, she says, "it seems like Obama has made race more salient in a negative sort of way that will make white people feel like they're not represented."
The poll findings come on the heels of several high-profile racial flash points this summer and ahead of midterm elections that will determine the balance of power in Washington. Thirty-two percent of Republicans say race relations have worsened (and 8 percent say they've improved), while 37 percent of Democrats say they're better (16 percent say they're worse).
Some liberal groups, such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), have publicly chided one of Obama's main opposition groups, the "tea party" movement, for allegedly harboring racists.
Conservatives have fired back, saying that what experts call "nonfalsifiable claims of racism" - i.e., using the race card - has become an irrelevant tactic in the eyes of most Americans.
The Monitor/TIPP poll findings don't …